Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The best and worst game experiences of 2010

It's that time of year for "Best of..." lists. Efforts to enumerate the best games published that year always seem a little arbitrary to me. Why a top 5, or a top 3? What if 2010 turned out to be a banner year for boardgames, or a barren one? The best games published this year aren't necessarily the best on the market. And, in any case, "Best of..." lists often say more about the reviewer than the game themselves.

Instead of passing judgment on the games themselves, I'll tick off some of the best game experiences I've had in 2010. By the way, if you've ever wondered about the value of Boardgame Geek's "games played" features, here's one benefit: I might have forgotten over half of these games, without this running chronicle.

In no particular order...

  • Maria. Since our game group has had many three-player nights, Maria saw a few plays in 2010. I love this game, both for how it plays, and how well it simulates its subject. I don't think I've ever seen a game deal with the tricky balance of power politics of the 18th and 19th century as vividly or interestingly as Maria does. It plays quickly, leaving me every time with the desire to apply the lessons learned to the next bout.
  • Runewars. At first, I harbored doubts about the game. Was this going to be an overproduced game which, like a few other FFG titles, suffered from too much attention to the components, and too little to the actual game play? Happily, Runewars turned out to be an excellent game, with lots of interesting choices, subtle strategies, and high replay value. Despite blowing a few key rules in our first plays, we saw enough potential to continue playing. I'm very glad we did.
  • Neuroshima Hex. Not only has this proved to be a great quick game face to face, but it's easily my favorite port of a boardgame to the iPad and iPhone. You can finish a game in about 10 minutes, and the AI is smart enough to give you a continued challenge.
  • Twilight Imperium. I've already said my piece about this month's session of Twilight Imperium in another post. Suffice it to say, I'll play this game at any and every opportunity. While Runewars is designed to reach the endgame faster, Twilight Imperium gives you a bit more time to savor the game experience and fine-tune your strategy.
  • God's Playground. Another great three-player game. While I've learned to appreciate After The Flood (Martin Wallace's other three-player game) more than I did on the first play, I still prefer God's Playground. In some games, you keep the invaders at bay; in others, they rampage through Poland mercilessly. In both cases, the game stays interesting and competitive. One of the best "coopetition" games out there. Plus, medieval Poland is a very interesting subject historically, and a great topic for a game.


Fortunately, 2010 saw very few bad gaming experiences. However...

  • Rush and Crush. A completely blah racing game, which is another way of calling it a failed racing game. No real excitement.
  • Innovation. Please, please stop trying to make the "Civilization that plays in less than an hour" games. Something will always suffer. In this case, the effort to make the game play quickly hinges on keeping every turn short, and the path to victory fairly direct. Unfortunately, in trying to meet these requirements, there are too many turns in which you can't make any real progress. Bim bam boom, keep it moving.
  • Tammany Hall. This is the game that inspired me to write a post about the role randomness plays in giving players a buffer to make adjustments in their strategy. Tammany Hall is way too deterministic for a game that takes a fairly substantive stretch of time to complete. I can see where you will improve your strategy over multiple plays -- but so will everyone else. The twin problems of "beat on the leader" and "how the heck to I catch up" seem very likely to remain.
  • Combat Commander Battle Pack #2: Stalingrad. Not a bad game at all, really, but it definitely wasn't the Stalingrad I expected. Practically no buildings...? Weird.

I've played Race for the Galaxy to the point where I don't want to play it ever again. I certainly got my money's worth, but the game started to irritate me. The randomness of card draws, combined with the deck that got larger and larger with each expansion, made half the games feel like a wasted effort. 

It doesn't help that the last expansion threw the game out of whack. Games ended with more lopsided victories. Prestige didn't seem like quite the game-balancer I had hoped it would be.

There are lots of games that I wish we'd been able to play in 2010. Most of them are two-player games, and most of those are wargames. Our little group just isn't structured in a way that we can easily break into parallel games, so two-player titles have fallen by the wayside. Hearts and Minds, Hellenes, Stalin's War, Claustrophobia, Battles of Westeros, A Most Dangerous Time, Command & Colors: Napoleonics...The list continues.

On the multi-player front, high on the list of games I'd love to play in 2011 are Here I Stand and Successors. Both are card-driven wargames, covering fascinating periods of history. Good fits for our group, but we just haven't been able to get to them yet. (Getting 6 people together and enough time for Here I Stand is no small feat, as we've found.)


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